Think about the last time you were so deeply, mentally involved in an activity that you lost your awareness of your surroundings, your sense of time and perhaps your sense of self. Maybe you were running the last stretch of a 5k, or reading an enticing page-turner. Maybe you were doing some intense doodling or engaged in an interesting philosophical debate with a close friend. Sometimes, during these activities, you become so psychologically engaged that you forget that you exist as an individual entity with real responsibilities and emotions. When you’re totally and completely absorbed in a good book, you most likely aren’t worrying about your due-too-soon English paper or feeling anxious about that job interview coming up.
There is a name for the state of mind attained through these kinds of experiences. It’s called flow. Flow, defined by Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a “heightened state of consciousness” in which we are totally focused and immersed in a specific activity. Csikszentmihalyi is also a pioneer when it comes to the empirical study of happiness. Many characteristics of flow correlate with those of happiness; therefore, it is assumed that experiencing flow regularly contributes to levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Through his research, he has found that people are the happiest when they are doing something that allows them to fully express who they are and reminds them that their existence matters. Csikszentmihalyi exemplifies this idea by identifying a few key components of the flow experience:
- The goals of the activity are and remain clear
- The sense of time is somewhat lost
- Self-awareness vanishes
- Anxiety about failure is absent
- The activity presents a challenge that is not too difficult or too easy
- The activity is done for the sake of doing it and nothing else (external rewards)
Csikszentmihalyi also mentions the autotelic personality in his theory; someone with this type of personality tends to engage in activities simply because he or she wants to, and not to gain anything outside of themselves. There is no desire to impress someone else or win an award. The motive is to do, and that’s it. Sometimes, it’s hard to complete a task without thinking about what we will receive in return. But this internal desire to simply do may not only help individuals improve their abilities in general due to the intense concentration that goes into the work, but may also help them cultivate a stronger curiosity and verve for life. Engaging in flow experience may actually help you enhance your skill set and abilities. It will not only make you a better artist, a more efficient reader or a well-trained football player, but it will also strengthen your desire to become better in these areas.
Flow is not necessarily about experiencing positive emotions or mental states. Instead, it is about being totally involved in the activity at hand and diminishing the meddlesome nature of the overly analytical mind, which in turn, may increase overall happiness.
Pleasure vs. Enjoyment
Understanding the difference between pleasure and enjoyment is important in understanding how flow helps us increase overall well-being. The experience of pleasure is more passive and usually entails an activity that is repetitive; eating a warm delicious chocolate-chip cookie or watching clips of The Big Bang Theory may fall under the umbrella of pleasurable activities. There’s not really a challenge presented in either of these circumstances; you’re simply observing and not trying to achieve a goal. Enjoyment includes activities that may provide a sense of accomplishment or effortful engagement. You don’t feel particularly happy or satisfied while experiencing flow, but you’re more likely to look back and think the experience was enjoyable rather than at that current moment. Flow isn’t really about being stress-free and relaxed; that’s not what happiness is. Happiness is being able to work towards a goal, overcome obstacles and be totally engaged in this process.
Although many people are not aware of what flow exactly is, they still may be able to describe a flow experience of their own if they heard a description of it. Here are a few activities in which many people experience flow:
- physical activities (yoga and running are good examples)
- …even working
I enjoyed writing this article; however, I definitely had to do my research on flow and concentrate in order to elaborate on the concept clearly. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable at the time; despite this, I’m fairly confident that I experienced flow as my fingers hoped and raced across the keyboard, and as I remained so immersed in the message I was trying to convey throughout the process.
Here are a few daily things you can practice in order to increase your flow experiences:
- Engage in flow-inducing activities in a setting that is absent of distractions.
- Try new things! Whether it’s reading, yoga, or a new sport, it is more likely than not that you will get better with practice. If the activity resonates with who you are as a person, you’ll go from being frustrated and bored to determined and lost in your effort to face the new challenge.
- Watch less TV that is just purely for entertainment.
- Try not to multitask. This divvies up your attention, preventing you from concentrating fully and most likely increasing stress levels.
There is a bigger and more profound idea that surrounds flow. When you experience flow, you forget that you are an individual entity. You become your activity and a part of your surroundings, and this tends to lessen the voice of your ego in general. Your responsibilities and emotions are not the only things that matter; instead, you are connected to something larger than you. With flow, you lose your sense of self, gain a stronger sense of community, and learn more about who you are and what makes you happy.
If you want to learn more about the flow experience or happiness in general, check out Csikszentmihalyi’s best-selling book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Photo by: Will Baldwin